No other animal, apart from dogs, have bonded so closely with us as have horses. While dogs became our best pals, horses enabled us to run over entire continents and define history ever since we climbed on to their backs some 3,500-4,000 years ago (first in Asia). Every king, emperor or ruler worth his crown had his or her favorite warhorse, be it Chetak, Bucaphalus, or Rocinante. Literature is full of moving horse epics: Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka, Seabiscuit: An American Legend et al. The Lone Ranger had Silver, his jungle brother, while The Phantom had Hero. Rugged film stars (and comic book heroes, often the two are not mutually exclusive) have signed off rearing up dramatically on jet-black or pure, white stallions, twirling round and round as the sun goes down behind them. We’ve been thrilled by films like National Velvet, The Black Stallion, The Horse Whisperer and Seabiscuit.
Yes, they’re gorgeous aren’t they — with those large eloquent eyes, floppy fringes, glossy coats, stars and blazes, their hoof-beats drumming like the palpitations of lovers. There’s nothing so stirring as a herd of wild horses thundering down a gully, raising clouds of gold dust.
And yet, I’ve never quite been able to figure them out (or ride them). Maybe, that’s because they’re so ultra-sensitive, so tautly tuned to the “fight or flight” response. (They are prey animals.) Their relatives, the zebras, are pretty kick-ass creatures and untameable and those rodeo broncos are just plain mean, but even “civilised”, everyday horses make me just a little wary; there’s always that element of unpredictability around them, you know the way they roll their eyes and stomp their hooves…
They’re not naturally violent animals that provoke fights (unless there’s a pretty mare around); they might lash out and bite if cornered. In a crisis (no matter how trifling), their first impulse is to rear up, flail their forelegs and then flee. And there lies the rub, because if there’s a rider on board, most likely he or she is going to fall off and be dragged along at 35 mph, which is sad if the trigger is nothing but a flapping toffee wrapper. What really beats me is how horses had been trained for battle (and battle scenes in films). Remember it was armies with cavalries that invariably crushed those without. A clue perhaps lies in the term, “breaking a horse”, which seems to imply crushing the animal’s spirit so it does your bidding, no matter what its instinct tells it to do . Horse lovers will say there are gentle ways of training horses, and surely there must be.
Horse-racing is a truly thrilling spectator sport and yet I’ll never forget how horrified I was when I read (and blame either Desmond Morris or David Attenborough or both) that the only reason why the horses run like that is because they think they’re being pursued by a predator, which is clawing at their backs (the jockey’s strop). Jockeys and trainers might tell you otherwise, but will we really ever know?
Is it the sheer joy of the gallop, of outdoing the competition, that spurs them on or are they just being spooked into running for their lives? We can only hope it’s the former, but if our favourite wins the Derby, do we even care?
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher
Email author: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appeared in print with the headline No Horsing Around